Thursday, November 7, 2013

Distracted Governing, and Other Notes from the Council Meeting

Things you need to know from the council meeting last night, in order of probable importance:

1. Council voted to approve the Fire Service Billing Program. This mean if you own property in Norristown and have a fire, or if you need to be rescued from your property for whatever reason, your homeowners or business insurance will be charged for fire and rescue services by PA Fire Recovery Service (a third party vendor located in Allentown). That is, assuming your insurance policy has a rider that covers fire department services. Mine does--I'm covered for up to $500 (which, minus PAFRS's 15% fee, won't even cover one firetruck and 3 firefighters coming to my house for a half hour).

PA Fire Recovery Service assured council that individuals would not be billed, only insurance companies.  If this is true, it means those of us who are insured for the services are not only paying for our insurance, but for all fire service costs of the uninsured, and presumably for costs above what insurance covers, all of which will continue to be paid through our taxes. The insured pay twice.

PAFRS also assured council, and states on their website, that the insured "won't even see an increase in their premiums." Council somehow bought that. Sure, we won't have an increase in our premiums to start, but if you have even a small fire and PAFRS charges your insurance company, I guarantee your next homeowners premium will be higher, just as your car insurance premium rises after a fender bender.

Councilman Simpson said the matter had been discussed before. Councilwoman Christian said she believed that, though the matter had been discussed by council, it had never been presented to the public. I looked back through the last 9 months of agendas and minutes and found no mention of Fire Service Billing at all, so Ms. Christian was right. Taxpayers were allowed no public comment before the motion was passed.

2. Bill Caldwell said obtaining a slip ramp for Lafayette St. Transportation Improvement is the most critical development project for Norristown. He urged everyone, businesses in particular, to write to our legislators in support of Norristown getting the ramp, because other communities are also vying for it. Linda Christian pointed out that saying it in a council meeting was all well and good, but asked what was really being done to get the word out?  Mr. Caldwell said the Greater Norristown Corporation is informing business. I got the impression that no one cared if residents were informed, so please write to your state legislators, who you can find by clicking here. Pass the word to other residents.

3. There will soon be an ordinance to prevent large commercial trucks from parking in residential neighborhoods unless making deliveries or performing services. This seems to be a growing issue all over town. In my neighborhood, one of the residents parks a flatbed towtruck either on the street, taking up at least 2 spaces and blocking the stop sign at the corner, or he parks it in his drive in the alley. It's too big and sticks out into the alley 4 or 5 feet. The business owning the truck is only 2 blocks away, which is where the truck ought to be left at the end of the day. The new ordinance will hopefully get some of these large trucks off our residential streets. So thank you, Council, for that.

4. In the last months, I've been hearing from people who attend council meetings that they think the council members and appointed officials shouldn't pay more attention to their electronic devices--phones, tablets, etc.--than they do the meeting. 3 council members and 3 appointees were mentioned, though I can only bear witness to 2 of each myself. So, during the public comment period last night, I asked those present, out of respect for the taxpayers, to please turn off their devices during meetings. Mr. Millner declared loudly that he would continue to tweet and post to Facebook during meetings "to keep the public informed." The only other one to use a device all evening was Mr. Glisson, Director of Public Works, who used his tablet to look up a point of information regarding the trucks in the ordinance above, which is exactly what electronic devices SHOULD be used for during meetings.

Mr. Millner spent perhaps 60% of the meeting typing on his device, which may explain why he repeated the new police chief's resume after Mr. Simpson had already done so, and why Ms. DeSouza,  Ms. Christian and Mr. Caldwell needed to explain information about 2 ordinances in answer to Mr. Millner's questions, after Mr. Caldwell had already adequately explained them for everyone. I checked Facebook this morning, but there were no public posts from last night. Below are his tweets posted during the meeting, in order from bottom to top.

Mr. Millner has 423 Twitter followers, most of whom aren't from Norristown. You decide if the quality of his information was such that it was worth distracting him from the business at hand. I commend Mr. Millner for trying to inform the public, but perhaps he could take a lesson from Ms. Christian, who sends a newletter out to 3rd district residents once a month or so. Actually, I'd encourage ALL our council members to copy that example.

As for information about council meetings, I think I'll stick with journalists like Carl Rotenberg from the Times Herald, who is a true asset to Norristown. Mr. Millner seems to think the only way one can serve our community is to be a councilperson, and that people who want to comment about the way our government conducts itself must run for council or keep quiet. Democracy is nothing without good journalists, independent observers, and involved citizens. And we all have the right to speak up.

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